19 AUGUST 1989, Page 39


For love of Vanessa

Ursula Buchan

Ihave a friend who lives at the foot of the Sussex Downs who counts butterflies. For five years, she or her husband (both keen gardeners) have kept a note each day of the species which come to the garden. The day I visited in mid-July they counted 12 (Large White, Small White, Green- veined White, Holly Blue, Small Tor- toiseshell, Large Skipper, Red Admiral, Brimstone, Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Gatekeeper and Comma) — just over half of those they could reasonably expect to see in their garden during the year. It occurred to me that I could not claim such numbers and that perhaps, like many country gardeners, I paid only lip-service to the cultivation of butterflies. Sitting in that garden, with the air constantly stirring from the beat of soundless wings, I felt rather shamefaced.

Which is perfectly ridiculous. Before I get carried away by guilt born of sins of omission, it is well to remember that I, like most gardeners, grow a wide range of butterfly-attracting plants in the garden as a matter of course. Who can honestly say that they have no buddleia? Why, even the brickwork at South Kensington tube sta- tion grows it. The spiraeas, viburnums, lavenders, hebes, valerian, aubrieta, Michaelmas daisies, honeysuckles, ornamental blackberries, sedums and ivies in my garden are all nectar plants. Geographical and topographical position also influences the range of butterflies in the garden, so concerted encouragement of them will probably increase their numbers more than their variety. The reason I cannot count 12 species on a July day in my garden may be partly because I do not live on the edge of chalk grassland in the south of England. The real reason for my defensiveness is a common one: a consciousness that en- couraging butterflies intelligently demands entomological knowledge of a high order, not to mention an easy familiarity with Jack-in-the-hedge and Yorkshire Fog. But the business can be reduced to manageable proportions, I believe. Plant a wide selec- tion of herbs and allow them to flower; establish sizeable groups of single, prefer- ably throated flowers, many of them pale in colour; leave fallen fruits. Identifying which likes what can come later.

If some of the plants suggested in but- terfly books seem a little drab, there are

usually more garden-worthy varieties which will do as well: the coloured foliage forms of the native bugle, Ajuga reptans, for example, or Coronilla glauca rather than the Crown Vetch, even June- flowering Buddleia alternifolia `Argentea' and, for a warm wall, Buddleia fallowiana `Alba' as a change from Buddleia davidii. I think it is unlikely that the butterflies will mind.

Caterpillars are sometimes more choosy, but satisfying their wants need not be too complicated. You will need holly and ivy for the Holly Blue; a patch of nettles somewhere inconspicuous for the Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral; borage for the Painted Lady (not a refer- ence, incidentally, to the little woman and her weakness for Pimms); spring-maturing cauliflowers because they will survive the depredations of the Large and Small White the previous summer; and a piece of overgrown lawn away from the house for Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper. Most gardens have a flowering currant (Ribes) which their owners cannot quite bring themselves to throw out, despite the smell, which will do for the Comma. The beauti- ful grass Deschampsia caespitosa 'Gold- schleier' should please the Ringlet, Speck- led Wood and Wall Brown. It has to be said that what these really enjoy is Agropy- ron repens but not even for the fun of counting butterflies will I purposely culti- vate couch grass.